Peter Gluckman - super scientist

Selecting our New Zealander of the Year is never easy. The first draft of nominations throws up an array of contenders whose feats provoke admiration, respect and gratitude.

But there is a smaller group whose contributions have something extra. They may be professionals whose excellence in their field is accompanied by an ability to make a mark on our national standing or to touch our hearts. Others are ordinary New Zealanders who have made extraordinary sacrifices.

Our final exceptional field is honoured in the following pages.

Our New Zealander of the Year is distinguished by a long career of achievement that has brought life-saving developments in medicine and demonstrated an ability to produce world-leading scientific research in New Zealand.

He is Dr Peter Gluckman, 55, founding director of the Liggins Institute and the National Research Centre for Growth and Development, and chief scientific officer of Neuren Pharmaceuticals.

In all three areas of his work - foetal development, brain injury and marrying science and commerce - 2004 has been remarkable.

Gluckman is one of the world's leading researchers in the foetal origins of subsequent growth and health.

He has made important advances in the understanding of brain injury caused by traumatic birth, stroke or accidents. He was one of the first to realise that brain cells do not die immediately in a traumatic event, but undergo "programmed cell death" over several hours, creating a window of opportunity. Since 1982, he and colleagues have used this knowledge to develop a "cooling cap" for premature babies, who are at risk of brain injury during birth.

Gluckman led an international trial of the cap in New Zealand and overseas and reported the results in May. The cap can save the lives of about 8 per cent of brain-damaged babies and ward off cerebral palsy and other disabilities in another 8 per cent.

Gluckman and his team have also found that our evolution as hunter-gatherers has programmed us with significant medical consequences. These findings culminated this year in a paper in Science by Gluckman and the director of the Centre for Developmental Origins of Health and Disease at Southampton University, Professor Mark Hanson, and a new book The Fetal Matrix, published by Cambridge University Press.

Gluckman chose to work here because he has a vision of transforming New Zealand into a "knowledge economy". He founded Neuronz and later Endocrinz to commercialise molecules which his team found to be potentially effective in treating brain injury and growth and development disorders. This year the two companies merged to form Neuren Pharmaceuticals, which announced plans to list on the Australian Stock Exchange.

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